By  on April 2, 2009

Price really does matter when it comes to men’s tailored clothing — especially anything under $2,000.

With the country mired in the recession’s doldrums, moderate chains such as The Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A. Bank are offering recession-buster deals for the common man. Men’s Wearhouse has extended its popular buy-one-get-one-free promotion indefinitely, while Bank is offering customers a refund if they buy a suit for $199 and then lose their job.

But even at the higher-end, it’s opening-price-point goods that are selling best for retailers so far this spring. Even so, that doesn’t mean the male consumer has turned his back on fashion. Department and specialty stores report that while the most-edgy designer suits may not be moving, shoppers are still seeking contemporary styles to update their wardrobes. Brands such as Hugo Boss, Etro and Dolce & Gabbana appear to be fitting the bill for men who want to look modern but still be considered serious and professional.

“For us, the best-selling tailored-clothing category is contemporary,” said Tom Kalenderian, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s wear for Barneys New York. Among the store’s top performers are Hugo Boss, Armani Collezioni, Etro and Dolce & Gabbana. “The luxury classics have slowed more than the younger, more modern lines,” he said.

Kalenderian speculated the consumer who purchased classic collections in the past has been among the hardest hit by the meltdown in the financial markets. “But the modern customer may not be as invested in the stock market or mortgages,” he said. And the more-contemporary shopper is open to “stretching his tailored wardrobe into casual” by wearing a suit jacket with a pair of raw denim jeans on the weekends. “The luxury guy doesn’t do that,” Kalenderian said.

Whatever the reason, Barneys is seeing good results with Hugo Boss, with an opening price of $1,035, followed by Richard James at $1,675, Gucci at $1,750, Etro at $1,775, Dolce & Gabbana at $1,885 and Armani at around $2,000.

“With a few exceptions, the action is under $2,000,” Kalenderian said.

Among the more traditional vendors, opening-price suits also are selling best, he noted. Barneys opens with Canali at $1,995, followed by Zegna at $2,695. Lagging are the higher-priced offerings such as Isaia at $3,321, Brioni at $5,325 and Kiton, the top end, at $6,250. The impact is also being felt in the designer department, he said, where sportswear is outperforming tailored pieces. Thom Browne’s shirts and other “underpinnings,” for example, are outperforming his shrunken suits. And Prada, Gucci’s designer line, Jil Sander and the like are “down,” Kalenderian said.

“The perception of clothing in the designer world is more sour,” he said. “What’s selling to the designer customer today is not ‘go-to-work clothes.’ It’s more about what is unique and different.”

Kalenderian believes that while business overall remains challenging, the picture is brightening somewhat. “If you’re addicted to fashion, how long can you stay away?” he asked. “We’re not on the cusp of a cure yet, but there are some people who are shopping. We, as retailers, have to provide a balanced assortment, be creative and offer special merchandise. We cannot be boring.”

David Fisher, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s for Bloomingdale’s, said although suit sales are not robust, it’s the opening-price lines — both classic and contemporary — that are doing the best. “Business up to $1,400 is OK,” he said. “But you still have to have an incentive, a deal or a suiting event to drive sales.”

Among the best performers are Z Zegna, Hugo Boss Black Label, Burberry and Theory.

“But the more expensive and classic it is, the worse it is,” he said, noting that Canali, Corneliani and Armani are not selling as well. “It really isn’t surprising considering the financial situation,” Fisher said. The men who used to buy this type of merchandise are “at the top of the unemployment list.” And those who still have jobs may refresh their wardrobes with one suit rather than three, and they’re “skittish about spending $1,800 or $2,500,” he said.

The quest for value is sweeping America right now, Fisher believes, and affecting other merchandise categories as well. “We’re seeing more and more that if people are going to spend $800 on a jacket, they’re going to pair it with a $150 jean from Levis E, which is a lot cheaper than Rock & Republic. There are definitely price-point fears out there.”

Dan Farrington, gmm of men’s for Mitchells/Richards specialty stores in Connecticut, is also seeing some price resistance, although he is experiencing sell-throughs on more-fashionable lines such as Etro and Hugo Boss. While sales overall remain sluggish, contemporary suits are “better than everything else,” he said. “Part of that might be price-point related,” he added, since Hugo Boss retails for around $1,000 and Etro at $1,200 or so. Suits that retail for $3,000 and up are being impacted more by the recession. “We all got a little drunk in the heyday, but today everyone is looking for a deal,” he said.

As a result, the company has been “rethinking” its vendor mix and “intensifying” its lower-priced lines such as Hugo Boss, Coppley and Joseph Abboud. “Business is not explosive, but it’s a bit of a bright spot,” Farrington said.

The stores are also emphasizing fit to lure customers to shop. “If you haven’t bought a suit in two years, chances are it’s out of date,” he said. “So we’re pushing that to make the stores fresh and give customers a reason to buy.”

Lou Amendola, chief merchandising officer for Brooks Brothers, said tailored clothing is doing better than the store as a whole. “We’ve noticed an uptick in very basic suits — solid navy, gray and classic pinstripes,” he said.

Across the store, “price is definitely an issue,” he added. “Younger people are getting more serious at work, and [we’re seeing more sell-throughs] on our opening-price and 1818 suit business.”

For Brooks, that translates into “anything under $1,000,” Amendola said. “What has been challenging are our higher-price suits and made-to-measure — anything geared to the chief executive-type guy.” In the past, this customer would take his bonus check and visit the store for a novelty item. “But he hasn’t been in the door this season,” Amendola said.

Turning to Black Fleece, the Thom Browne-designed collection that is among Brooks’ highest-priced offerings, with suits selling for around $1,900, Amendola reported: “We’re actually having our best season so far. The Bleecker Street store has gotten off to a strong start and is exceeding plan.”

Brooks opened its first Black Fleece stand-alone store in the West Village in January.

Amendola said sportswear, particularly knitwear, has been a surprise bestseller within the Black Fleece range. “We have a knit sport coat that is selling out,” he said, noting cardigans are also performing well. “The suit sales are comparable to last year, but we’re getting the growth from sportswear,” he said.

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